The Makeup Breakdown

Photographer: Chanel Irvine

Two Bossy contributors give their opinions on whether makeup is empowering and a means of creative expression, or if it is simply another way women are expected to conform to patriarchal beauty standards.

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The modern woman is constantly challenged by the need to conform to both media and peer-depicted representations of what the physical self should look like. Being a young 21st-century woman, I can certainly relate to the feeling of being bombarded by these societal definitions of what beauty is, and subsequently feeling the need to apply them to myself.

For me, using makeup initially started as a simple desire to be creative and have fun; it was an activity I did in my bedroom alone, without caring what others thought of me. When I was younger, it made me feel stronger and more mature; it helped me be brave at times.

However, through socialisation and the exposure to many individuals who promoted superficial ideals and beauty standards, I started to feel the need to ‘improve’ myself, thinking that by wearing makeup I’d ‘look normal’.  I became a conformist without even knowing it, by submitting to societal pressures to represent myself in a certain way.

I now have a routine every morning. When I wake up, I have a shower and do my makeup. It’s become integrated into my lifestyle. Most of my friends, except for a select few, have never seen me without makeup. Makeup is like a protective blanket, and it allows me to look like people expect me to. I don’t wear it to ‘look good’ – it’s gotten to the point where I wear it to ‘look normal’.

I feel like one of the main issues with makeup is wearing it because we want to be normal or fit in, when really, we should feel accepted without it. I went to a high school in a very small country town, where, in year 12, if you didn’t wear makeup, you were perceived to be ugly and treated horribly. It’s experiences like these which shape our social selves, and encourage us to conform to certain norms.

Now that I’m older and I’ve learnt more about feminism, I feel slightly cheated of my youth. My teenage years were spent worrying about my physical appearance and modifying myself to please other people. I now see the importance of allowing girls to grow up without constantly reminding them that ‘girls should be pretty’, because in doing so, we are only reinforcing societal pressures.

The issue with this kind of socialisation is that we often can’t see the various ways in which it manifests. Through our own socialisation, we end up contributing to a snowball effect; we conform to beauty standards, hence continuing to normalise such ideals.

I believe that the way our peers, and furthermore society, encourages us to feel like we need ‘improvement’, is very destructive. I particularly notice this when I visit countries that are nearly untouched by Western standards of beauty, and where women walk around with their natural faces. It’s a freedom I wish I had, but quite honestly, I just don’t feel confident enough. I feel like currently, with a full face of makeup on, I look ‘socially acceptable’, and I’m much too afraid to challenge that yet.

By Aleyn Silva

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I love makeup. I spend countless hours watching product reviews and tutorials on YouTube, and I cried actual tears in the middle of a restaurant because my friends gifted me a palette that I had lusted after for a year. I am also not in the business of telling anyone what is the best thing for them, or if their feminism is ‘good enough’.

However, makeup culture cannot be considered in isolation or on an individual basis. The creative artistry it espouses masks an insidious undercurrent of white supremacy and excessive consumerism that is presented as the only and best way to be a woman.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about makeup culture and beauty gurus? Young, beautiful, wealthy, and, without a doubt, skilled. Lightly tanned skin, chiselled cheekbones, non-textured hair, double eyelids and a button nose. The features that are almost solely presented as desirable – as beautiful – are products of a system that places whiteness as the pinnacle of not only beauty, but worth. Full lips, rather than being a feature celebrated when they appear on black women, are considered a ‘trend’ on white faces. Companies release foundations in limited shades of pale beige, and then insist there is no market for darker skin tones or different undertones.

People of colour who use social media as platforms for their work are relentlessly harassed by consumers and fellow influencers alike – Jeffree Star, for example, has continuously made public comments comparing black women to animals, and has joked about lightening a black woman’s skin tone using battery acid. There have been numerous similar incidents over the years, often followed by an apology and a promise to do better, only to be repeated a month later with no real repercussions.

Models with dark skin are often forced to bring their own makeup on set, because makeup artists rarely have their foundation shade available. People with monolids are told, both overtly and implicitly, that their eye shape is too difficult to work with, or to use eyelid tape to achieve a more Anglicised shape. The makeup industry places whiteness on a pedestal – from the features that are presented as desirable, to the influencers that are lauded and allowed to both actively and subconsciously validate racism, or to even be publicly racist themselves.

Young women are being advertised a branded version of ‘femininity’ that emphasises a singular way to be a woman: with sculpted brows, smooth skin, shiny hair, and winged eyeliner better than the girl next to you. Social media influencers have a vested financial interest in making you want to buy ‘All The Things’ to make you feel better about yourself. Do you really need another warm-toned eyeshadow palette? A gold-infused face primer? A $50 lipstick almost identical to one you already own? The makeup industry is steadily growing and increasing in profitability, and this often relies on feelings of insecurity or compulsion at the Sephora or Mecca check-out.

Makeup, and the process of taking time for yourself for just 10 minutes in the morning, can be therapeutic – sometimes there’s nothing like a bright lipstick to make you feel invigorated and ready for whatever the day brings. But this process must be engaged with critically – what features are you trying to achieve and why? Do you feel comfortable with yourself and your appearance without makeup? Did you buy that product because it is of real use to you, or because you felt compelled? Do you ever subconsciously feel better or more ‘worthy’ than another person because they don’t wear makeup or own the products you do?

It’s entirely possible to engage with the makeup industry and the artistry involved while recognising the underlying forces at play. White supremacy and consumerism infiltrate every aspect of our lives, and makeup is no exception. Celebrate non-Eurocentric features, and even acknowledge that standards of beauty are inherently restrictive and burdensome. Don’t buy products you know you will never use. Recognise that the ‘flaws’ you believe are there are not flaws – but are what make you unique.

By Laura Perkov